A controversial issue has landed in front of politicians in the Ukrainian parliament and is receiving international attention. Seventy-eight Ukrainian lawmakers from all sides of parliament have proposed giving the title ‘Hero of Ukraine’ to controversial figures such as Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych.
Some Ukrainians see them as war heroes who fought for Ukraine’s independence in the 1930s and 1940s.
For others, they are anti-Semitic war criminals who participated in the mass killings of up to 100,000 Jews and Poles during World War II in Volinia and eastern Galicia.
The proposal also calls on the Ukrainian Parliament and the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to commemorate the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, UPA, which operates from the 1940s to the 1950s, on its 80th anniversary in October next year.
It also includes the suggestion to build monuments and the issuance of coins and stamps, “dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, as well as to Stepan Bandera, Roman Shukhevych and other UPA commanders.”
The Ukrainian parliament will now consider the proposal, which is expected to face strong reactions from Poland and Israel if it is adopted.
Bandera was named ‘Hero of Ukraine’ in 2010 by outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko, sparking protests in Poland and Israel before Bandera was stripped of his status again in 2011.
Pavlo Kutuev, chairman of the sociology department at the Igor Sikorsky Polytechnic Institute in Kiev, tells Euronews that the measure of the 78 legislators is really controversial.
“This issue is extremely controversial and is dominated by ideological views,” he says.
“It is used to mobilize supporters, and I would say that it is counterproductive in Ukraine’s relations with countries like Poland, but also in the integration of society. They are heroes in western Ukraine, but they have different ones in eastern Ukraine. “
“I think what we see now is an attempt to run on Zelenskyy’s party’s patriotic ballot and try to get more voters,” says Kutuev.
A controversial issue
Bandera, Shukhevych and the UPA are controversial for several reasons. Critics point to the mass killings of up to 100,000 Jews and Poles and the fact that UPA cooperated with Nazi Germany at the beginning of World War II until it became clear that Nazi Germany would not recognize the independence of Ukraine.
Others see them as heroes fighting for independence and accuse Poland of mass murder and deportation of Ukrainians in the 1940s.
The view of the UPA is also divided within Ukraine. A study conducted this year by the Center for Democratic Initiatives shows that 80 percent of Western Ukrainians are confident that the Ukrainian government recognizes the UPA soldiers and their fight for Ukrainian independence.
On the contrary, only 25% support in eastern Ukraine. The study also shows that 70 percent of Western Ukrainians have a favorable opinion of Bandera as a historical figure, while that figure is 11 percent in eastern Ukraine.
Sviatoslav Yurash is a member of the Ukrainian parliament for the president’s party ‘Servant of the People’ and is one of 78 lawmakers supporting the proposal. He tells Euronews that he understands the proposal is controversial and says he is not arguing against atrocities committed by UPA members towards Jews and Poles. However, he maintains that Bandera should be remembered for her fight for independence.
“They are controversial; I agree with that, ”says Yurash,“ (But) they said we don’t want to be a puppet or an instrument. We want to be an independent state. The history here must be remembered, but we must not forget all the problems either. However, his goal was very clear: an independent Ukraine. And it is worthy of giving stamps and coins ”.
Yurash says it should be clear that Bandera and the UPA are not honored for the atrocities committed, but for their role in Ukraine’s fight for independence. Nor does it exclude recalling horrors such as Babi Yar, the mass murder of Jews by Nazi Germany in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. The Ukrainian government plans to build a large monument in memory of Babi Yar.
“I do not disagree that we should remember, examine and acceptably apologize for the horrible actions committed, but so did the other party. Efforts and deeds of the Polish movement in Ukrainian villages: displaced and destroyed. Focusing on this (blaming others) is a mistake, and I think it will be a mistake. We have a bear in the East that we need to focus on, ”says Yurash.
Creating a national identity
The “bear” that Yurash refers to is Russia, where he sees the real enemy. In 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula, and a war broke out between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
It has claimed more than 13,000 lives, according to the UN. Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin published an essay where he argues that the people living in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are essentially the same people and that Russia will never accept the anti-Russia movement in Ukraine.
Russia’s vision of Ukraine’s independence scares Yurash and makes it essential to celebrate the people who historically fought for Ukraine’s independence, like Bandera. However, Yurash says that people considered heroes in eastern Ukraine also deserve recognition.
“We must go beyond national heroes. We should look at what unites Ukraine, like our values, which are agreed in the West and the East. It is our values that, like glue, unite us. Respect for civil and spiritual institutions and freedom, ”he says.
Professor Kutuev explains that Ukraine is still working on its national identity building process after the emergence of the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Ukraine has had to break with its Soviet past and underline its own identity, which has caused it to resort to figures considered anti-Soviet and anti-communist. On the one hand, it is a natural development, but on the other hand, it could be dangerous because it could amplify the different points of view within Ukraine, ”he says.
Kutuev argues that Ukraine still lacks academic examinations of certain historical events and a public debate on its past.
“I am not saying that Bandera does not deserve this historical status, but that the government should be more careful because he is not a hero to all Ukrainian citizens.”
It is not yet clear what President Zelenskyy thinks of the proposal. The Kyiv Post writes that he had previously said that Bandera is a hero to some Ukrainians.
“He is one of the people who defended the freedom of Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said in 2019.
“He’s a hero to a certain percentage of Ukrainians, and he’s normal, and he’s great.”
The Ukrainian parliament is currently on summer vacation and will resume its work in September. The proposal is unlikely to be reviewed before then.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism